Members of All India Students Association (AISA) shout slogans as they hold placards during a protest outside police headquarters in New Delhi, India, October 18, 2015. Dozens of AISA members on Sunday held a protest against the recent rapes in the capital, the demonstrators said. REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee - RTS4YAL

Marking the anniversary of the 2012 Delhi rape, and the feminist movement it launched

What does it mean to mark anniversaries of violence? Which anniversaries do we mark, and how do we take these memories forward as movements?

On December 16th 2012, physical therapy intern Jyoti Singh (known as “Nirbhaya,” or “Fearless”) was brutally raped on a bus in Delhi. She subsequently died from her injuries.

The attack inspired nationwide protests and global rage, as Indians took to the streets to protest pervasive violence against women. As a result of the protests, an Indian government committee issued the comprehensive Justice Verma Committee Report, a sweeping indictment of patriarchal violence recommending, among other progressive mandates, the criminalization of marital rape and an end to military impunity in acts of sexual violence.

While subsequent laws did not fully implement these progressive suggestions (marital rape and the persistence of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act remain important omissions), the Report provided a blueprint for how the law could take a more feminist direction against sexual violence.

Friday marks the fourth anniversary of Singh’s attack, and of the movement against it. The anniversary will bring feminist observances across India and the world. It also offers us an opportunity to learn from the post-16 December movement and to critique our own assumptions about gender, sexual violence, and intersectional movement-making worldwide.

Sexual Violence is Global

After the 16th December attack, newspapers across the world were filled with reporting on sexual violence in India—coverage that both shed light on a pervasive problem and, all too often, relied on racist tropes spawned by centuries-old colonial notions of Indian masculinity.

Both Indian and non-Indian feminists alike critiqued coverage that implied sexual violence was a uniquely “Third World” phenomenon. Indian feminists protested the classism, racism and sensationalism endemic to media accounts both in India and abroad. They questioned the role of class in the nation’s indictment of the attackers: Was it easier to decry the brutality of the violence when the attackers were impoverished men, rather than soldiers or literary elites?

In the United States, some feminists noted that Singh’s attack occurred in the same year as the Steubenville rape case and questioned the racist assumption that sexual violence is something that happened “over there” rather than right here at home. Meanwhile, a growing college anti-sexual violence movement pointed out the hypocrisy of condemning sexual violence only in the Global South when it remained rampant in the halls of the most prestigious American universities.

Sexual Violence is Intimate

One especially important intervention to come from the Indian feminist movement is an insistence on the intimacy of sexual violence. Sexual violence does not come merely, or even primarily, from the stranger on the street, the migrant worker or the slum-dwelling man. Rather, sexual violence starts from our most intimate relationships of family, love, and home.

In India, this critique has included feminist movements to defy patriarchal control in the name of “women’s safety.” For example, feminists have protested the Islamaphobic discourse of “love jihad,” propagated by the right-wing, claiming that Muslim men are intentionally attempting to seduce Hindu women in order to lure them away from family. Feminists have pointed out the way that supposed concern for women’s welfare is actually an anti-Muslim project in which women are pawns. Meanwhile, the Delhi-based (but nationally-expanding) movement Pinjra Tod, or “break the cages,” continues to mobilize its intersectional vision against restrictive university accommodations which lock women up after 8pm “for their own good.”

Sexual Violence is Structural

One key recommendation of the Justice Verma Committee Report, which has not been taken up by the Indian government, calls for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). AFSPA, a law condemned by numerous human rights groups, grants the Indian army special impunity in the contested regions of Jammu and Kashmir, and some Northeastern states.

Sexual violence by government forces is globally rampant, and Indian feminists continue to call attention to military sexual abuses. In 1991, soldiers were accused of cordoning off and raping at least 23 women in the Kashmiri Villages of Kunan and Poshpora. Inspired by the coverage of the 16 December rape, a group of young Kashmiri activists recently wrote a book about the case, which is still sin the Supreme Court. Sexual violence in Kashmir remains an issue today. Meanwhile, women citizens and activists alike have experienced widespread abuse in other conflict-ridden areas of the country, like Bastar.

Additionally, Indian feminists continue to draw attention to cases of sexual and gender-based violence which have not drawn the same level of global outrage as Singh’s case—questioning the many intersectional reasons that make some cases more high-profile than others. Dalit and anti-caste activists, for example, continue to protest the brutal rape and murder of Delta Meghwal, a Dalit (“untouchable”) woman who died under suspicious circumstances after reporting a sexual assault by her teacher. Activists argue that since Meghwal was a Dalit woman living in a non-metropolitan area, her victimization has been ignored by the mainstream media.

Movement Making

Of course, state sexual violence is not an Indian-only phenomenon. The American has engaged in sexual torture from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay. American police, meanwhile, not only humiliate and dismiss victims of sexual violence—many are guilty of sexual violence themselves. Oh yeah, and our soon-to-be President is a known sexual assailant.

This 16th December, as we remember Jyoti Singh and the movement for justice in her memory, let’s also remember all the violence that does not make the news. And let us recommit to take these struggles forward: For Nirbhaya, for ourselves, and for the many, many people with untold stories.

Photo: Student activists bearing signs from the leftist All India Students Association (AISA) protest sexual violence in Delhi. From Newsweek. 

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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